Latvian History


Latvia (lăt´vēə), Latvian Latvija, officially Republic of Latvia, republic (2015 est. pop. 1,993,000), 24,590 sq mi (63,688 sq km), north central Europe. It borders on Estonia in the north, Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Riga in the west, Russia in the east, and Belarus in the southeast. Riga is the capital and largest city.

Land and People

Latvia falls into four historic regions: North of the Western Dvina (Daugava) River are Vidzeme and Latgale, which were parts of Livonia; south of the Dvina are Kurzeme and Zemgale, which belonged to the former duchy of Courland. Latvia is largely a fertile lowland, drained by the Western Dvina, the Venta, the Gauja, and the Lielupe. There are numerous lakes and swamps, and morainic hills rise to the east. In addition to the capital, Liepaja, Daugavpils, Cesis, and Jelgava are the chief cities.

About 58% of the population consists of Letts and of the closely related Latgalians (both widely known as Latvians). About 30% of the people are Russians, and there are Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian minorities. Latvian is the official language; Russian and other languages are also spoken. The predominant religions are Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

After independence (1991), Latvia sought to limit citizenship in order to favor Latvians and other Balts over ethnic Russians and other minorities. In 1998 the laws were eased, granting citizenship to all children born in Latvia after Aug. 21, 1991, and making it easier for Russian-speakers to become naturalized. Nonetheless, about a fifth of all residents remained noncitizens in 2005, and the Latvian language requirement for naturalization was tightened in 2006.


Latvia has transformed its formerly state-run economy, inherited from its years as a Soviet republic, into a market economy. Most government-owned businesses and financial institutions have been privatized, and the country has encouraged foreign investment. Rapid economic growth, however, contributed to an especially sharp contraction during the global recession that began in 2008, resulting by 2010 in the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. The economy has improved since then, but economic inequality remains among the highest in the EU. Dairying and stock raising remain integral to the agricultural sector, which employs almost 15% of the labor force. Grain, sugar beets, potatoes, and vegetables are also important. The nation has valuable timber resources.

Latvia is an important industrial center; industry employs about 20% of the workforce. The nation's industries are extremely diversified and include food processing and the manufacture of buses, vans, street and railroad cars, synthetic fibers, agricultural machinery, fertilizers, electrical appliances, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. Distilling and shipbuilding are also significant, and tourism has developed as a source of foreign income. Exports include wood and wood products, machinery, metals, textiles, and foodstuffs. Raw materials, equipment, chemicals, fuels, and vehicles are imported. Trade is primarily with Lithuania, Germany, Estonia, and Russia.


Latvia is governed under the constitution of 1922 (restored 1991), as amended. The president, who is the head of state, is elected by parliament for a four-year term; there are no term limits. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The unicameral parliament (Saeima) has 100 members who are popularly elected for four-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 109 municipalities and 9 cities.


The Letts (after whom the country was also called Lettland) were conquered and Christianized by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in the 13th cent. Their country formed the southern part of Livonia until 1561, when the order disbanded and its grand master became the first duke of Courland, a vassal duchy under Polish suzerainty. In 1629, Sweden conquered Livonia (except for Latgale), which it lost in turn to Russia in 1721. With the first (1772) and third (1795) partitions of Poland, Latgale and Courland also passed to Russia.

The region had been dominated since the time of the Livonian knights by German merchants, settled there by the Hanseatic League, and by a German landowning aristocracy, which reduced the Letts to servitude. Under the Russian regime these German "Baltic barons" retained their power, and German remained the official language until 1885, when it was replaced by Russian. Between 1817 and 1819 the serfs were emancipated, and in the middle of the 19th cent. a national revival began.

By the end of the 19th cent. there was great agricultural and industrial prosperity. In the Russian Revolution of 1905 the Letts played a prominent role, and bloody reprisals were meted out. Latvia was devastated in World War I, but the collapse of Russia and Germany made Latvian independence possible in 1918. Soviet troops and German volunteer bands were expelled. Peace with Russia followed in 1920.

The Latvian constitution of 1922 provided for a democratic republic. The largest land holdings were expropriated. However, there was no political stability, and in 1934 its constituent assembly and political parties were dissolved. In 1936, Karlis Ulmanis became a virtual dictator. Soviet pressure forced Latvia to grant (1939) the USSR several naval and military bases; a subsequent Latvian-German agreement provided for the transfer of the German minority to Germany.

Soviet troops occupied Latvia in 1940, and subsequent elections held under Soviet auspices resulted in the absorption of Latvia into the USSR as a constituent republic. Occupied (1941–44) during World War II by German troops, whom the Latvians supported, it was reconquered by the Soviet Union. In the postwar years, the remaining estates were at first distributed to landless peasants, but soon almost all the land was collectivized. Latvia's resources and industry were nationalized, and a program of industrialization was pursued by the Soviet regime.

In May, 1990, the parliament of Latvia annulled its annexation and reestablished the constitution of 1922. A referendum on independence passed in Mar., 1991. Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union was recognized by the Russian SFSR in August and conceded by the Soviet Union in Sept., 1991. Subsequent relations with Russia have been tense at times; a border treaty with Russia was not ratifed until 2007. In 1993, under the restored 1922 constitution, a new parliament was elected, and Guntis Ulmanis became president. In 1995, a politically independent business executive, Andris Skele, became prime minister. Ulmanis was elected president for a second term in 1996.

Latvia became a member of the United Nations in 1991, and in 1993 signed a free-trade agreement with its fellow Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania. Virtually all Russian troops left by Aug., 1994. Guntars Krasts became prime minister in 1997; he was succeeded in 1998 by Vilis Kristopans, who formed a center-right coalition government. In 1999 Vaira Vîke-Freiberga was elected president, becoming the first woman to hold such a post in Eastern Europe; she was reelected in 2003. Andris Skele again became prime minister in July, 1999, but resigned in Apr., 2000, after his coalition collapsed in a dispute over privatization. In May, Andris Berzins became prime minister of a four-party coalition.

Elections in Oct., 2002, gave the largest number of seats to the centrist New Era party, whose leader, Einars Repše, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition. Charges of mismanagement against Repše caused the coalition to collapse in Feb., 2004, and a three-party center-right minority government, led by Indulis Emsis, was formed. Emsis became the first Green party leader to head a European government, but the coalition government resigned after losing a budget vote in Oct., 2004.

In Dec., 2004, Aigars Kalvitis, of the People's party, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition government (a three-party coalition after Apr., 2006). Also in 2004 the country became a member of NATO and the European Union. Kalvitis's coalition won a majority of the seats in parliament in the Oct., 2006, elections, becoming the first coalition to win reelection since Latvia regained its independence in 1991. In May, 2007, Valdis Zatlers, a surgeon who helped found (1988) the proindependence Latvian Popular Front but had little subsequent political experience, was elected president.

Kalvitis resigned in Dec., 2007, under pressure; his government's attempt to remove the country's anticorruption chief led to his resignation. Subsequently, Ivars Godmanis, of the Latvia's First/Latvia's Way party, became prime minister, heading the same coalition; Godmanis also was prime minister in 1990–93. In 2008 Latvia's significant economic problems forced the country to secure a €7.5 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union, and others. The crisis also led to the collapse of Godmanis's government in Feb., 2009; a new five-party, center-right coalition, with Valdis Dombrovskis of the New Era party as prime minister, was formed.

The withdrawal of the People's party from the coalition in Mar., 2010, over economic recovery measures left Dombrovskis with a minority government, but the coalition won a majority in the Oct., 2010, elections and Dombrovskis formed a new coalition government in November. In June, 2011, Andris Berzins, a business executive and politician (not the former prime minister), was elected president; Zatlers failed to win reelection after he accused legislators of being tolerant of corruption and called a referendum on dissolving parliament. The subsequent referendum (July), however, approved the dissolution.

In the election in Sept., 2011, the pro-Russian Harmony won the largest bloc of seats, but needed to form a coalition government with other parties who were reluctant to do so because of policy and ideological differences. Zatlers' Reform party placed second. In October a three-party coalition government, led by Dombrovskis (now of Unity, into which New Era and other parties had merged) and including the Reform and National Alliance (NA) parties but not Harmony, was formed. A referendum that would have made Russian a second official language was rejected by roughly three to one in Feb., 2012.

Dombrovskis's government resigned in Nov., 2013, to take political responsibility in the wake of deadly supermarket roof collapse in Riga. In Jan., 2014, Laimdota Straujuma, an independent, was named to succeed Dombrovskis with the support of the governing coalition and the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS); she was the first woman to be became prime minister. The country adopted the euro in Jan., 2014.

After the Oct., 2014, elections, Straujuma remained as prime minister, heading a coalition formed by Unity, ZZS, and NA; Harmony again won, by a smaller plurality, but lacked the allies to form a government. President Berzins did not seek reelection in 2015, and Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis, of the ZZS, was elected to succeed him. Disagreements in the governing coalition led to Straujuma's resignation as prime minister in Dec., 2015; she was succeeded in Feb., 2016, by the ZZS's Maris Kucinskis.


See A. Bilmanis, History of Latvia (1970); R. J. Misiunas and R. Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940–1980 (1983).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Latvian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Latvia in World War II By Valdis O. Lumans Fordham University Press, 2006
The Collapse of the Soviet Empire: A View from Riga By George J. Neimanis Praeger Publishers, 1997
Latvian-Russian Relations: Documents By Alfred Bilmanis The Latvian Legation, 1944
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Soviet Policy toward the Baltic States, 1918-1940 By Albert N. Tarulis University of Notre Dame Press, 1959
The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back By Gertrude Schneider Praeger Publishers, 1991
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
New Governments of Eastern Europe By Malbone W. Graham Jr H. Holt and Company, 1927
Librarian's tip: Chap. X "The Liberation of Latvia"
Theorizing Latvian Lives: The Quest for Identity By Skultans, Vieda Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 3, No. 4, December 1997
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